Hajime - Part II
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa (Jan 2010)

            Ring, ring.


            “Mike, what do you know about Shotokan karate?”

            After a thoughtful pause, he replied, “Not much, but I do know it’s known for its very powerful blocks.”

            He treated my question as a “hello”; the great beauty of siblinghood is the freedom to dispense with formality. I described the dojo and karate class I’d just seen, and said I might try this out. Though Mike fell briefly into big brother mode, a touch nervous about his small-boned younger sister pursuing such a force-based style, he was intrigued and encouraging. But there would be bruising. “Take iron,” he cautioned. “And calcium.”

            The following week, I walked into my first karate class. Warming up all around me were men and women of various ages, colors, shapes and sizes, but all wore the traditional white uniform, the gi. I wore blue Wharton sweatpants and a Mr. & Ms. Penn Bodybuilding Competition spectator T-shirt. I may as well have had a “THIS IS MY FIRST CLASS” face tattoo. At the instructor’s command, everyone lined up in order of rank. From left to right there were black, brown, purple, green, orange, yellow, and white belts. And then there was me.

            We drilled through basic punches, blocks and kicks in place, then traveling up and down the floor. When we returned to the line for a sparring exercise, the lowest rank – at none, that would be yours truly – ran to face the highest, and the next lowest followed, and so on. Viewed from above, this might resemble a snake making a sudden U-turn.

            “Alright, everyone,” shouted the instructor, whose weathered, grizzly voice had translated every term for me until this point. “I want you to mwah mwah and mwah mwah mwah, but when you’re facing her” – he pointed to my head – “I want you to mwah. Got it?” Not a bit. But the highest ranking student in tonight’s class took the time to help me. He was around 35, compact and muscular, and more soft-spoken than I had expected. As he was not too proud to bend down and place my feet where they should go, I saw a lot of the top of his half-bald, half-shaved head, nearly fuchsia with the heat and shimmering with sweat under the dojo lights. He taught me a twelve-punch sequence and deflected each attack very gently, encouraging me whenever I got any part of any technique right. “Good! Exactly! Just like that!” he said.

            Wow. The black belts here are really nice, I thought. I won’t say that I was mistaken, but I later learned that he was an instructor there. I moved on to face the next highest-ranking black belt, who was massive and spherical, but solid. Probably in his late 50s. If Cab Calloway gained 75 pounds, he might have looked like this man. Though not as deliberately helpful, he took his time with the rookie. Then I bowed and stepped to my right.

            Before me stood a very tall, older man who had obviously been thinking about other, more pressing matters when the instructor explained what to do when facing me. “Hajime,” stage-whispered the instructor. Context and repetition told me that this word must mean “begin.” I prepared, announced “jodan” – face level – and moved forward with a punch so slow it could have been no threat to anyone with two working eyes. All the iron and calcium in the world could not have prepared me for what happened next.


            He blocked as though I were someone who had just thrust a knife towards his face. At full speed. After insulting his mother. The stinging, intense, ladies-and-gentlemen-it’s-a-homerun, baseball bat-like blow to my forearm shocked my entire system, bringing tears and stars to my eyes before I could blink once. I had twelve good reasons to say, “To hell with this”: that block and the eleven to come. Instead I gritted my teeth and willed my eyes to clear, but as my arm quivered in the air, a cloud appeared above my opponent’s left ear. Inside it was my brother Mike, and I heard his voice saying, “I do know it’s known for its very powerful blocks.”

            Right again, big brother.

            I toughed out the remaining full-power Shotokan blocks, and the resulting forearm bruises rotated through the entire karate belt color spectrum. I did not buy a uniform until the following Monday so, in T-shirts, with my Technicolor arms exposed in class every night that first week, I resembled either a serious badass or a victim of a recent mugging.

            A few months later over dinner with three dojo-mates, I made the mistake of sharing what I now thought was kind of a funny story about my first karate class. My fellow low-ranking student laughed with me. The other two, a man and a woman among the most experienced I knew then or know now, stared me down across the table.

            “Who was it?” they said, almost in unison. The other student stopped laughing. Everyone looked at me.

            “Oh, it’s fine! See? I came back!” I forced a laugh.

            “No,” they said, as though I had misunderstood the question. Leaning forward, crossing their arms upon the table, they quietly asked again. “Who was it?”

            Outranked, my peon compatriot took this moment to examine the crumbs on her plate. When your Senpai – higher ranking students – request the answer to a question, you must respond. All I could offer them was a description, but their pursed lips and shared glance told me they knew the culprit. They then continued as if I were no longer present.

            “You don’t do that to beginners,” the woman spat.

            The man nodded, frowning. “She could have been injured.”

            Back in Philadelphia, the next time I saw the man he was in a wheelchair.

            OK, kidding. I don’t know what was ever said to him about his conduct. What I do know is that I am not a beginner anymore. And even when I was one, despite the ringing pain in my arms, I returned for class #2. So, while that man set a horrible example, he also helped me to understand my own capacity to press on. And, evidently, to hold a grudge. As I advanced, on the rare occasions when I faced the nameless gentleman again for sparring exercises, yeah, I blocked a little harder than I needed to. So what? Think less of me if you like, but somewhere, my very first martial arts instructor just smiled and said, “You show him, Sis.” And that is good enough for me.

←Prev Column        Next Column→